Since the moment Mychal Rivera was drafted, he was the underdog. The same held true last year and is the case again this year. And yet, both years, when all was said and done, there was Rivera as the team's leading tight end.
He was a sixth round pick in the 2013 draft and wasn't even the first tight end drafted in that round - Nick Kasa was taken ahead of him. Rivera and Kasa joined the team battling for what was supposed to the backup to David Ausberry. Ausberry got hurt in preseason, and Kasa was slow to develop, so the top tight end target was Rivera.
Last season, Ausberry was again expected to start, and again got injured. Kasa was injured as well was soon no longer with the team. Meanwhile Rivera raised his game again from 38 catches for 407 yards to 58 catches for 534 yards.
This offseason, he once again was not the favorite for the tight end job coming in. The team recognized the need to upgrade the position and chose Clive Walford in the third round of the draft to solve it.
With new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave on board, the Raiders are expected to utilize a lot of two-tight end sets which would feature a combination of Walford, Rivera, and Lee Smith, which means regardless of who wins the competition at the position, there could still be plenty of chances to make plays.
"I'm really excited," said Rivera. "Coach Musgrave comes up with a lot of great plays. Every single day he challenges us as an offense to expand our football knowledge. Especially with the tight ends, he moves us around, he'll have one tight end in line, one in the backfield, the next play we'll both be out wide. He does a lot of great things so I'm excited for this year."
Walford looked greart in OTA's and minicamp as the primary tight end target, and was touted as the "complete package", with even Rivera saying Walford "can do it all". But since attending the team's pre-camp warmup with his fellow rookies, he has been out with an undisclosed injury the first four days of training camp. So, once again, Rivera finds himself as the guy to carry the load as the team's number one receiving tight end.
In these first four days, Rivera has made a pretty good impression on his coaches with his increased looks from the offseason practices.
"He's an athletic guy," said Jack Del Rio. "I think he showed some of that athleticism here early in this camp with a couple of nice catches. We like the way he's worked throughout the offseason. He's continued to strengthen himself, continued to develop as a player."
There will be different things Rivera will be asked to do in Musgrave's offense. Rivera was expected to fill mostly the H-back role, with an emphasis on his receiving abilities, which plays to Rivera's strengths. It's crucial he put the best foot forward to show he can be the top tight end in this offense. He understands he must continue to work to earn that trust from his new coaches.
"Just becoming a better route runner," Rivera said. "You get me in space on these match-ups, whether they're a mismatch, whether it's a small DB, I gotta be able to create my own space and make plays."
The severity of Walford's injury is unknown, and the best case scenario for this team is to have him back in camp as soon as possible. With him, this is a great looking tight end group. But without him, the Raiders must roll on. Even though Rivera is the only longest tenured tight end on this team, they are all fresh from the coaching staff's point of view and all must make an impression. With Walford out, the spotlight is on Rivera. Thus far, he seems to have stepped up to the challenge.
"I always want to win the competition," Rivera added. "If there's a race, you wanna get in first. That's it."